REFORM PARTY LEADER PRESTON MANNING RUNS INTO A BARRAGE OF CRITICISM— AND SCRUTINY
REFORM PARTY LEADER PRESTON MANNING RUNS INTO A BARRAGE OF CRITICISM— AND SCRUTINY
It was the type of political forum that Reform party Leader Preston Manning clearly relished. For about an hour last week, some 300 senior Canadian construction company executives who were meeting in Toronto sat stone-faced and silent as Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau dispassionately described his vision of a Canada without Quebec. In Parizeau’s sanguine view, little would change: Quebecers would share with Canada a common currency, a prosperous trading relationship and the rights to dual citizenship. After Parizeau’s speech ended to polite applause, it was Manning’s turn. Visibly relaxed before the business audience, the former management consultant warmed up the crowd with a humorous anecdote before launching into his own vision of Canada’s future—and a direct attack on Quebec’s bestknown separatist. Declared Manning, to the first of several loud rounds of applause: “I really think Mr. Parizeau proceeds too quickly to the technical details of sovereignty-association and grossly underestimates the commitment in the rest of Canada to keeping the country together.”
For Manning, the warm reception in Toronto marked a welcome respite from the barrage of criticism and unprecedented public scrutiny that the leader and his four-year-old party have endured in recent weeks. On Nov. 19, three days after ex-Nazi David Duke lost the race for governor of Louisiana, Liberal MP Sheila Copps created an uproar by comparing Manning to the former Ku Klux Klan leader and declaring some of the Reform party’s policies “racist.” Then, Manning and his closest advisers faced questions about confidential internal party memos that cast doubt on Reform’s muchvaunted image as a party that listens to its
grassroots members. The critical examination continued with the release on Nov. 21 of a book, Preston Manning and the Reform Party. Written by Murray Dobbin, a left-leaning freelance journalist based in Saskatchewan, it depicts Manning as a masterful manipulator of his own membership. Another book, Storming Babylon: Preston Manning and the Rise of the Reform Party, by Don Braid, a highly respected political columnist for the Calgary Herald, and his wife, Sydney Sharpe, a freelance writer, will be released early in the new year. Those
_ authors take a more evenhanded—
though equally critical—view of the leader and his party.
The attacks on Reform continued last week—from the highest level. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used the western swing of a national unity speaking tour to ridicule Manning’s economic policies and to portray Reform as a destructive force in Canadian politics. Addressing 850 Tory faithful at a $350-per-plate fund-raising dinner in Calgary, where Manning now lives, Mulroney heaped scorn on the Reform party’s promise to cut billions of dollars from the federal budget without decreasing services, raising taxes or adding to the deficit. “This would be an achievement next to the miracle of Lourdes,” intoned Mulroney. “It’s so astonishing that, if he can do it, I might vote for him.” Prior to the speech, Mulroney told reporters that a strong performance by Reform in the next federal election could lead to an NDP-Liberal coalition government that would usher in “the national energy policy, high taxes, high deficits and all the things Albertans are fighting against.” At the same time, Mulroney lambasted Manning’s insistence on strict provincial equality in any future constitution as “a recipe for the destruction of Canada.” Mulroney’s comments reflected how seriously Manning’s adversaries in all three mainstream parties take the Reform party threat. Chris Axworthy, an NDP MP from Saskatoon, frankly acknowledges that Reform will attract a large number of voters in a» his province because “they are speakMÜ ing clearly about the Constitution, and from a western perspective.” Still, Axworthy says that the party may prove vulnerable because of its philosophical opposition to farm subsidies and marketing boards. His caucus colleague Dave Barrett, the former NDP premier of British Columbia, was typically more colorful in his assessment of the Reform party’s potential weak|g nesses. Noting that Manning has modified his opposition to the federal ¡I Goods and Services Tax and is an ardent advocate of free trade, Barrett said that Reform is “exactly like the lo Tories. Both parties are out to screw
you, but Reform promises to do it in English only.”
But no opposition MP has taken a greater personal interest in the Reform party than deputy Liberal leader Copps. She has even put together a briefing book, including recent Reform policy statements and media articles about the party, and distributed it to fellow MPs and Liberal constituency presidents across the country. Copps insisted in an interview last week that Reform policies on immigration and multiculturalism smack of intolerance and that the party is attracting members by “hitting a lot of the same buttons” that Duke pushed. She also said that a few of the letters that she has received from self-described Reform supporters since her original statements suggest that the party has attracted some extremist elements. Claimed one letter-writer from Hamilton: “I don’t like troublemakers, and Quebecers, native Indians, blacks and Asians are all troublemakers and a problem for this country.”
For his part, Manning responds to the attacks philosophically, telling his supporters that the increased sniping simply proves that Reform is starting to take “a market share” away from its mainstream rivals. But in a wideranging interview with Maclean’s last week, Manning also expressed dismay about the current level of political discourse in Canada. He stressed that “no reasonable person could consider as racist” the Reform party’s opposition to federal funding of multiculturalism or the party’s immigration policy that judges applicants on economic, not ethnic, criteria. But he lamented the fact that “a party that challenges the status quo in any of these areas—be it immigration, language policy, the Constitution—automatically risks accusations of racism and extremism.”
But even as he attempts to counter his critics outside Reform, Manning is finding himself under attack by some of his own party members. Beginning early last month, Reform party presidents across the country received an unsigned memo that accused the party’s Calgary-based executive of making a mockery of Manning’s often-stated commitment to grassroots democracy. Accompanying the memo were a number of confidential letters and memos to and from party executives— documents that have since been obtained by several news outlets, including Maclean’s. In one of the memos, dated Oct. 25, 1990, Ken Warenko, the party’s policy development coordinator, complained that some party policy task forces had produced “unorthodox and most times extreme” opinions because task force chairmen had failed to exercise enough control. It said that “to control and protect the party’s agenda,” all such policy discussions would now be led by a member of the party’s Calgary-based policy committee, over which the leader presides. Among the key qualifications for future chairmen, Warenko cited “100per-cent agreement with existing party policy” and an ability to “manage an idea.”
According to some disaffected Reformers, the leaked memos are just the latest evidence of the way that Manning and his closest advis-
ers—sometimes called “the Calgary clique”— control the party. Said Gary Cummings, past president of Reform’s Winnipeg South constituency, who was reprimanded by Manning in another leaked memo for criticizing comments made by a party executive member: “I joined Reform because I thought people would be free to express themselves. But I’m seeing more and more the heavy hand of the leadership coming down on the members.”
According to Manning, most of the dissenters are “malcontents crying the blues.” Still, he told Maclean’s that as the next federal election draws closer, he is trying to impose some internal discipline on the party. Declared Manning: “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you’re so open-ended that any small group with a crazy idea can influence you inordinately and on the other hand get criticized for trying to impose some discipline.”
The claim that Manning exerts an unusualdegree of influence on his party is reinforced by both of the new books on the Reform leader. They point out that for all of Manning’s determined canvassing of the grassroots, the policies that the party has adopted bear a striking resemblance to the stridently conservative freemarket principles that Manning and his father, Ernest, who served as the Social Credit premier of Alberta from 1943 until 1968, set forth in a book and policy papers published more than two decades ago. The authors view many Reform members as earnest, alienated citizens who often latch on to one or two of the party’s positions while remaining ignorant of, or uninterested in, the party’s overall agenda.
As a result, both books contend, many Reformers are susceptible to the friendly persuasions of their leader— even when he is taking them in a direction they initially opposed.
For his part, Dobbin portrays Manning as a wily opportunist who told his original western supporters that they were joining a party that would fight for a fair deal for the West when all along his true goal was to create a new national party of the right. Similarly, Dobbin describes how the party initially gained tremendous support because of its unequivocal opposition to the GST, yet Manning now advocates retaining the tax.
In Storming Babylon, Braid and Sharpe marvel at how Manning is able to bend the party to his own will on issues ranging from the GST to eastward expansion of the party to refraining from contesting provincial elections. They conclude that the Reform party is not so much a populist movement as “a massive delegation of trust” by voters to a revered leader. They add that Manning’s “bond with the party runs so deep that members accept inconsistencies from him that they simply would not tolerate in another politician.” As the title of their book suggests, Braid and Sharpe also contend that Manning is uniquely motivated among major politicians by his evangelical Christian beliefs.
“Preston Manning believes,” they write, “that the role of government is to make people free so they can find God in their own way.”
Some of Manning’s political opponents have already raised the spectre of Reform as a party driven by religious zealots. Copps, for one, said that unless Manning accepts “absolutely” the separation of church and state, his evangelical credo—which includes the view that women should be submissive to men and that homosexual acts are sinful—could help to promote policies that discriminate against women and gays. But Manning told Maclean’s that he would never try to impose his religious values where they conflicted with the expressed will of the party through a democratic vote. He added that he is already sorely outnumbered on that score, with only two of the party’s 20-
member executive council members sharing his particular religious beliefs.
For the time being, none of the recent controversy appears to have slowed Manning’s progress. A Reform rally in Edmonton on Nov. 30 drew 4,300 enthusiastic supporters—the party’s largest meeting ever in Western Canada. The party expects its membership to reach 100,000 by the end of the year and now has associations organized in all 220 federal ridings outside Quebec. Still, the authors of Storming Babylon note that Manning has so far enjoyed the luxury of addressing adoring crowds. “Nobody has yet seen Manning in the kind of knock-down political brawl Canadians inflict on their leaders sooner or later,” they write. The evidence of the past few weeks suggests that, for Manning, the moment of truth may be fast approaching.
BRIAN BERGMAN with JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and JAMES STEVENSON in Ottawa
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